"What is your reason for doing that?
You were sitting alone by the stream.
The green grass was sprouting,
And the water was splashing
From the spring breeze.
You promised that even if you go,
You won't be gone forever.
That is what you promised.
I sit by the stream each day
And think about something endlessly.
When you promised that even if you go,
You won't be gone forever,
Were you asking me not to forget you?"
- THE STREAM, A POEM FROM KIM SO WOL'S AZALEAS
Seven months, two weeks, three days, seven hours, and twenty-two seconds. That's how long the King of the Kingdom of Corea has been looking for her. He had to manually count the days as time flows differently when he was in that place between 1 and 0.
In between travelling the parallel worlds, he still had a kingdom to run. Sometimes it crowded his head, so much that he felt like he was a second away from floating like one of those red balloons that he used to scatter in this endless stretch of sand and water.
"Let's go, Maximus," he urged his mighty, white steed to go faster. As they slipped between the two obelisks and entered another world, he idly wondered what his words would be if this was it. If this was the Republic of Korea where one Lieutenant Jeong Tae Eul resided.
Dozens of scenarios rushed in his mind, each one making his heart clench painfully in his chest. He would take her into his arms, fit their lips together while murmuring promises and reassurance, hand over the blue magic lilies, and whisk her away to become his Queen forever. That was the best scenario, he thought, but it was also the most selfish one.
She doesn't even remember you, said some annoying prick in his subconscious. Before more of those thoughts overshadowed everything else, he took a deep breath and looked around, taking in his surroundings to figure out where he was this time.
As always, it was the bamboo forest. The sun was just beginning to rise on the horizon, barely kissing the skies and turning it red. Like a lover laying a tender hand over a beloved's cheek.
Finding the Taekwondo Center was so familiar, he could do it with his eyes closed. No matter which world he ended up in, somehow that place stayed in the same street, by the same neighborhood. Sometimes it was a restaurant, other times an apartment complex, but it was never empty land. Someone was always there, even if it wasn't who he was looking for.
He got down from Maximus and waited by his usual spot, facing the front door of her — of whoever lived on the second floor of this building. As much as he didn't want to get his hopes up, he was nothing without it. The past half a year has been brutal but the only thing that kept him going was that — hope.
As the sky changed colors, from kiss pink to a lighter shade, and lighter still, he felt his heart settle a bit. No one has come out of the house yet. Maybe no one was home. He checked his watch and saw that it read 7:22AM. She was an early riser, surely she'd be awake and wreaking havoc on all of Seoul at this time. Well, she would, but he wasn't sure if the person that lived here was his person.
Then the door opened. First a tiny fist wrapped around the edges of the wooden door. Then a dark head popped out, looked down, then turned her head back inside to yell something.
"Eomma, where are my slippers?" The shrill voice from that body called out inside the house, "Choco needs to go out for his morning pee-pee."
Just as the door opened some more, another dark head popped out. He felt his heart pound in his chest again. Is it you? Are you my Tae Eul? Before he could stop himself, he'd already taken a step forward. The movement must have caught the attention of Maybe-Tae-Eul and the little girl who looked like a carbon copy of the grown woman beside her.
The little girl had a small, round face and pink cheeks from the slight breeze of the early spring morning. Intelligent eyes that were the oddest mix of dark brown from the pupils and gradually shifting to light brown in the iris blinked up at him, charming, deep-set eyes. Her button nose wrinkled, reminding him of someone else's habit of doing just that when she's annoyed or hungry or just feeling particularly clingy and needed babying.
He looked up to her, to the Maybe-Tae-Eul who was smiling down at this child. Their eyes locked. His breath caught in his throat. Those eyes, so familiar to him, he felt like drowning in them for the rest of his life. He'd gladly do so. In the hundreds of times he's encountered different versions of her, none yet had looked at him in recognition.
But this one did. Is it you? Is it really you this time? He opened his mouth to call out to them when he realized he had walked over to them unknowingly. He was now looking directly up to them from the bottom of the fire escape that also served as the stairs to their apartment.
"Appa! You're here!" The little girl wailed, right before she hurriedly went down the stairs and threw her whole body into his torso. Tiny arms that could barely reach around his waist fisted in his long jacket as she buried her head in his stomach.
"When did you get here? Why are you outside? Woah, is that a horse—" the little girl was spitting out questions after questions, but Maybe-Tae-Eul cut her off.
"Chung Cha-ya, why don't you get Choco and take him for a walk? I'll help Dad settle in, he must be tired from his trip," she told her daughter gently. Chung Cha disentangled herself from him and went back up the house to follow her mom's directives.
He was too stupefied to move. For several moments, he just stood there and stared after the little girl who was the perfect, smaller version of the woman in front of him. The woman currently walking down the stairs, with a slight smile on her all-too-graceful face.
"Hey, you," then she too wrapped her arms around his rigid form. On instinct, he returned the hug before he could find out if it really was his Tae Eul. After a beat, and then another, the fog in his brain cleared up and he drew back.
She didn't seem to notice the complete and utter shock in his face as she straightened out invisible wrinkles on his shoulders and chest, running those long, delicate fingers over his upper torso. Then something caught his eye, a sparkly diamond ring sat on her fourth left finger. It was modest, clean cut with three other tiny diamonds engraved on either side of the band. Above it was a gold wedding band.
"Excuse me, but is your name Jeong Tae Eul," he started to ask but she cut him off with her tinkling laugh.
"Ya," she scolded with a playful glint in her eyes, "What is this? Are you trying to woo me with another cheesy line? Come on inside, Lee Gon Hwa, help me cook breakfast. Then maybe we can have a proper reunion after your daughter leaves for school."
She started pulling on his arm, but he didn't budge. His— his daughter? Then that means... the dawning realization hit him like a ton of bricks. He had a vague idea what happened to this world's version of him and Jeong Tae Eul the moment that little girl — Lee Chung Cha — called him Appa with the glee only children reserved for their beloved parents.
But hearing her say it out loud, he was almost certain she could hear the wheels in his head stop turning. His breath caught once more and he tried to swallow the rising panic, fear, and... and happiness, dear God, the happiness, that was starting to bloom in his once-again wildly beating chest.
We have a daughter. No, they have a daughter. Not him and Tae Eul, but this version of them, in this parallel world where there are no traitorous uncles, no magic flute, no sorrow, no separation. Only destiny. And love, there was certainly love, in the way she ran her hands so familiarly over his shoulders, in the way her eyes lit up at the sight of her daughter carrying a tiny dog wearing a tutu skirt.
He could only imagine the love that this world's Lee Gon, Lee Gon Hwa as she'd called him, had for his family. If it was even half of his love for Jeong Tae Eul, then this version of them was already well on their way to their destination together.
He steeled himself and stepped back, putting a sociable distance between them, "I'm sorry, I must've startled you," he chose his words carefully, as he didn't want to lie to her but he also couldn't tell her the truth because it would not only be outrageous for her to hear but also dangerous.
"I just came by to greet you good morning, but I just remembered I need to be somewhere first," he explained as fast as he could, already backing up some more to his horse, "I'm sorry, I'm sure I will be back later in the day. Please enjoy your day with — with Chung Cha."
He didn't wait for her reply as he hoisted himself up onto Maximus. As he rode back to the bamboo forest, his encounter with this world's Tae Eul will forever be engraved in his mind's eye. The way there was a lightness to her every step, the way her eyes sparkled, the way she curved her entire body protectively around a mini-version of her and her husband, these were imprinted in his brain and he couldn't shake them off.
Strangely, a poem that Court Lady Noh used to recite to him temporarily silenced these haunting yet brilliant images. He remembered being in his preteens, saddled with being a King with the body of a prepubescent boy on the cusp of adulthood, tired from long lessons in the morning and even longer meetings with the Cabinet members who always wanted to rub elbows with the Royals on Fridays.
It was a particularly grueling end to his week, but Lady Noh always comforted him by feeding him spicy tteokbokki and the palace's signature kimchi. Then he would ask her to recite old poems by scholars. He insisted on poems that she's memorized instead of those from one of the textbooks he spent days poring over. Lady Noh would heave out a sigh at first, but she always relented
You promised that even if you go,
You won't be gone forever.
That is what you promised.
Those lines, recited to him over a thousand-fold over the years, came rushing back now. Suddenly, he understood them better than he ever did before. He always thought the poem was sad, that it was a lover's ode to a lost beloved. It called to him as an orphan longing for a family that was gone, never to be heard or seen again.
Now though, it only reminded him of hope — of promises yet fulfilled, of the moon and water and chicken and jealousy, of stolen kisses in an effort to delay goodbyes, of linked fingers slippery from a night of bliss, of whispered love and soft touches.
I'm keeping my promise, Lieutenant Jeong Tae Eul.
I'm coming back to you.